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Three’s a crowd

You encouraged me by your non-comments, which to a taoist are as provocative as comments. Not that I’m a taoist. I’d look silly.

As Scott Thornbury put it in his call to arms back in 2000, “Somewhere along the way we lost the plot.” Teachers forgot that language was primarily a communicative tool for self-expression and self-realisation (and undoubtedly a million and one other things, but I’m one of those people who could never be accused of being a rigorous scholar) and began to think of it as a series of discrete facts that could be taught to the empty heads in front of them, memorised and reproduced at will. I say “at will”, but I suppose I really mean “in an examination hall”. Poor old Will would be most bemused if someone came up to him and barked that the future perfect is used to describe what will have changed at a given point in the future [how hard is it to explain that sodding tense without using it?].

I know that this is not the reality for many colleagues around the world who are teaching earnest besuited business executives how to clinch that final deal or how to sound knowledgeable and witty in a language that one might not fully control, but it is the reality for thousands and thousands (or millions and millions) of colleagues throughout the world. What the TTC has to say about this is equally applicable to all, whether working in the boardroom or in the boring room.

“Not exalting the gifted prevents quarreling,” says the Old Boy, “Not collecting treasures prevents stealing./ Not seeing desirable things prevents confusion of the heart.”

All well and good, say we, but what are you on about? Read into it whatever you want. Here’s a choice selection:

What is the highest achievement for a foreign language learner? Whatever it is, Lao warns that if we put it to high up on a pedestal, we’re going to end up feeling very unhappy and very confused. Think about the learner who abstracts the language into a commodity (hmmm, less clear than the Master himself). I mean, think about the learner who forgets that the language is a language and thinks of it as a hurdle that must be overcome in order to pass the exam.

I am currently working with a number of students from the same country who have been taught English in a way that encourages them to memorise long lists of decontextualised words and hinders their attempts to use it to communicate meaning. All of these students have a common goal in the classroom: all want to achieve a certain benchmark in a certain exam. In class, it is not unusual to find a couple completely ignoring whatever might be going on, so lost are they in the pages of their “LEARN ALL THESE WORDS AND PASS THE EXAM” book, that offers them such treasures as aardvark, ballistic and corpusculate. Try fitting them into an informal chat. Others may be studiously avoiding taking part in the class, some may be nodding off, having been studying until the early hours of the morning. Occasionally, someone appears who is keen to use the language to speak about their lives and interests. The only problem is that no one is there to listen.

Just a few weeks ago I had a tutorial with a lovely guy who is desperate to pass this exam. He asked me whether it was enough for him to learn a hundred words a day. Not whether it was reasonable or insane or possible – whether it was enough. He thought he had memorised some 3000 already, but he had been told that the goal for success in the exam was 7000 words. I sighed deeply.

“Not looking at the desirable/keeps the mind quiet,” I reminded the student. If your mind is quiet, it can actually hear what’s going on around it. That might be useful.

When students – and teachers – abandon their highest goals, they make it much easier to achieve them. Were you one of those unlucky sorts who found it difficult to find a partner when everyone around you seemed to be oblivious to the dangers of overpopulating the planet? I…errrr…had a friend like that. “I’ll never meet anyone,” quoth he repeatedly, “Verily must I have the outward appearance of Frankenstein’s monster.”

“Not at all,” said his friends, “You’re just trying too hard.” The more honest ones added, “And you speak weird.”

I interpet Lao as telling teachers that they should aim to treat all students equally. Forget what Student A can do and avoid comparing their classmates unfavourably with them. When we are assessing our learners, rather than give them passmarks or compare them with their classmates, assess their progress from their previous position. Don’t exalt the gifted, as it were. We’re all gifted in one way or another. I used to be able to drink people under the table.

Lao goes on to tell us in this part that “The wise therefore rule by emptying hearts and stuffing bellies/ by weakening ambitions and strengthening bones.”  At first, I thought of Maslow and how he would have felt to know that somebody had come up with his Hierarchy of Needs some 2500 years previously. Then I thought a bit harder and wondered if Lao wasn’t saying, “Stop pushing people towards goals that are always just out of reach. Start giving them the Stuff of Substance – in this case, language as a means of communicating what you really want to communicate.” The more language that is used as it is supposed to be used, the closer people will come to their goals anyway.

Le Guin offers us the following translation. Think about how it might apply to your classes:

keep people unknowing,


keep the ones who do know

from doing anything

when you do not-doing

nothing is out of order.

It sounds as if it was the complete opposite of how we think a teacher should be, doesn’t it? But let’s look again: when Le Guin offers “Keep people unknowing”, it sounds as if she is exhorting teachers to maintain people in a state of ignorance. Very dangerous. But that is then counterbalanced by stopping the holders of knowledge from doing anything. If no one does anything, then what gets done? According to Lao, everything.

The world is a powerful place and the natural ways are the strongest that we know. What tends to happen is that in our attempts to speed up the natural ways, we often meddle them up a bit and cause all sorts of problems. Let things develop as they will and be on hand to explain what might be happening and things will not get out of order. This is a central belief of taoists such as Doris Day who popularised “do not-doing” in her fifties hit, “Che Serà, serà.”         .

In a language classroom, the learners who sweat less about how many words they should learn in a day are going to learn more than the poor soul who is trying to cram a hundred words into their head on a daily basis. The learners who read more books and less language exercises are likely to develop their understanding of grammar more than those who do it the other way around. Teachers who let the language emerge as and when it needs to are likely to be under a lot less pressure than the ones who are trying to apply their template onto a class full of diverse individuals, no matter how many Needs Analyses have been carried out.

  1. October 6, 2009 at 14:19

    Oh yes, I have had a few lessons like that in blighty on university summer schools. Students present in the lesson with those special vocabulary books on their knees and eyes cast downwards while they memorise lists that cannot be of any possible use. Such a stress for them. I was always pretty easy going about letting them continue, as trying to encourage them not to often produced anxiety ridden responses that seemed to cause such pain to the individual, I felt it wrong to pressurise them to partake in my lesson incase I caused an inadvertant breakdown. I only taught each group for a week though – not sure how I’d feel if they were my regular classes all year. Allowing language to emerge and letting go of the need to “control” is very liberating. It mirrors the uncertainty of human experience or as Ursula would say (you quoth her repeatedly so I sense she’s a personal favourite?)

    “the only thing that make life possible is permenant, intolerable uncertainty – not knowing what comes next”

    Learning to embrace *that* is a moment worth recording in everyone’s tiny existence!

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